One of the first things I learned in elementary school about limitations on freedom was premised on the following logic: An individual’s freedom ends once the actions of an individual begin to impede or intrude on another individual’s freedom. This is why, I learned, that things like stealing from others was bad, because it took away their right to own objects they paid for. In the case of free speech, I think that the same principles can be simply applied.
In my experience, the case of “free speech” is a very intense topic around college campuses and current political debates, and I have felt a lot of emotion from both sides. It seems as though one side is arguing for “safe spaces” and the other side is arguing that this space impedes on their freedom to voice their opinion without repercussion.
While there are many disagreements in logic and practice between the two sides that I will address, the first thing I would like to focus on is the illusion of private versus public. It seems that the side for unlimited free speech would like to compartmentalize these “safe spaces.” The other side argues that the private sector has its own set of rules and etiquette distinct from the agreed upon public domain. This line becomes blurred on college campuses, in the classroom, in the workspace, etc. It is in the seemingly public domain, I think, that their safety, and their freedom, is treated as an afterthought to others feeling the need to disperse their ideas at any given moment. In all honesty, the argument for unlimited free speech is a strategically decorated blazer cloaking every other argument made by a privileged or advantaged person who, knowingly or not, is attempting to solidify and secure their privilege or advantage of their race, class, gender, health, etc.
To argue for the dispersal of your own opinion at any given time, regardless of the consequences, is not only a privileged argument in its complete ignorance of the systematic oppression built upon language, but is also an argument initiating and further participating in the oppression of marginalized peoples. It seems that this intense desire is rooted in distaste for censorship of what comes out of a person’s mouth, because the individual arguing for it has never had to censor anything, and has always been allowed the privilege of having their opinions heard, as well as the privilege of being able to argue for their opinion. The problem is that not everyone has been granted this privilege.
Furthermore, the way that we speak to each other, about each other, and about other things, both in public and in private, dictates our perception of reality. From the very little understanding I have of epistemology, language has a strong foothold in the human notion of reality. Therefore, articulating language to cater to oppressed people will help articulate a reality in which they are no longer oppressed. On the other hand, allowing people to have unlimited access to whatever they feel like saying at any given time allows for micro-aggressions against marginalized people to continue. These micro-aggressions will contribute to the epistemological landscape of the space they are said in, further engraving that space with privilege on one side, and oppression on the other.
I understand that it can be difficult and feel limiting to have to censor everything that you want to say. However, this challenge is a privilege, because some people’s voices are not even recognized as valid, let alone heard. And this challenge, believe it or not, does not negate or disregard the individual’s opinion, however. It just means that the individual now has to share their opinion in a way that is not going to contribute to the systematic oppression of other peoples. The fact that marginalized people have to fight for their identities not to be linguistically oppressed is disturbing enough. To argue that it is unrealistic, too difficult, or hindering to academic discussion is essentially telling marginalized peoples that their basic freedom of feeling safe and comfortable in conversational settings, whether that be the classroom or on Facebook, is a violation of their basic human rights. Challenging privileged individuals like me to articulate their dialogue in a way that does not marginalize others forces us to challenge ourselves to consider the effects of our words. In no way do I feel limited in my expression because I cannot publicly oppress other people, just as I do not feel limited in my physical freedom because I cannot publicly slap other people in the face.
Thinking about this in regards to the mishap at Bowdoin, I do not think that the students being punished for the tequila party will have any ounce of freedom stripped from them because they are not allowed to publicly appropriate Latino culture for their own entertainment. The silly thing about this is that these students aren’t even being asked to respect this culture, they are simply being asked not to publicly disrespect it.
I have personally learned a lot about these issues since I have been abroad. A few Turkish students have joked with me about the use of the N word, and thought it was funny “how Americans get so sensitive about it.” To my Turkish friend, making fun of African Americans is silly. He does not come from a country that was not only built on forced labor, but still oppresses these people today. And that is exactly what micro-aggressions do. They enforce infrastructures of oppression on marginalized people, in order to maintain this marginalization. African Americans are still facing unfair treatment in this country and using a slur against or telling a joke about black people is not an isolated linguistic act—it is a performance that has been ritualized into this societal context for over 200 years. African Americans are not the only oppressed peoples in this country, which is why it is important to bring up issues like what happened at Bowdoin recently.
Advocating for unlimited free speech privileges a certain group of people who already have the opportunity for their voices to be heard. It advocates for unlimited acts of violence and aggression towards marginalized people with little to no consequence. For this reason, it is hard for me not to argue for the censorship of what we say, to ensure that marginalized people have a verbal space to inhabit safely in public, as it is obvious that they do not always have safe physical spaces to inhabit in this country.